Robert Gordon was left in tears after first hearing his student Sofie Sheldon’s song “Mama Says” during his “Sex Squad” class.
The song, which Sheldon will perform Friday at Spring Sing, centers around sexual harassment and assault, and communicates the perseverance against mistreatment that women display on a daily basis, Sheldon said. The second-year world arts and cultures student said that she hopes her performance in front of around 10,000 people in Pauley Pavilion will help normalize conversations surrounding gender inequality and violence.
“I have so much personal experience with sexual harassment and assault and just becoming more independent as a woman in college,” Sheldon said. “I think us women talk to each other to share our frustration and stand in solidarity with one another, but I also think it’s important to share these stories, especially in light of the #MeToo movement, with those who don’t necessarily identify as female.”
Sheldon wrote “Mama Says” to give a voice to those who find it hard to share their own stories of harassment and assault, she said. The song was initially developed as part of an interactive theater project for World Arts and Cultures 160: "Performing Sexual Health: UCLA Sex Squad." Gordon, who co-teaches the class alongside the Sex Squad coordinator Veline Mojarro, said the premise of the class is inspired by Pieter-Dirk Uys, a South African comedian and AIDS activist who uses humor as a means of personal storytelling. Gordon said they use theater and art to address comprehensive issues surrounding sexual health in particular.
In doing so, the class creates a 45-minute sex ed skit performed by students at six different high schools in the Los Angeles area. After the performance, which is made up of a variety of realistic sex-focused scenarios, the high school students are encouraged to place themselves in the scenes and improvise ways that could improve uncomfortable or harmful situations.
Sheldon’s first-hand experiences, along with stories shared by high school students, informed the song’s lyrics, which follow a young woman getting catcalled as she walks down the street. The song begins with an objective third-person narration and then switches to first-person once the girl finds the inner strength necessary to fight back against pervasive misogyny, Sheldon said.
What Mojarro appreciates most about the song is its intergenerational appeal, she said. The name of the song itself alludes to the cautionary tales that mothers often have to relay to their daughters. Mojarro said she’s excited for Sheldon’s song to reach audiences who do not typically have to think about living with these kinds of warnings.
“It’s a huge battle and we have to start undoing generations and generations of integrated norms around this,” Mojarro said. “I really love that it speaks to that.”
Mojarro also said broadcasting Sheldon’s message to large audiences, like that of Spring Sing, is important in creating more accountability in contemporary culture, which too often blames the victim rather than the perpetrator. Sheldon’s song, Gordon said, shows female resilience by focusing on such issues from a strong female perspective.
One excerpt from the song’s lyrics is: “They can try to poke and pry but I will never be shy to say/ This is my place, this is my space, walk away/ Oh who’s your mama now?/ I will wear what I dare I don’t give a damn what you think/ Oh who’s your mama now?”
Gordon said Spring Sing serves as the perfect space to begin a dialogue about sexual violence by normalizing conversations that are too often left behind closes doors. He said that he was able to gain powerful lessons from the song, despite his own intense studies surrounding intersectional justice as part of the world arts and cultures department.
“As a male audience member listening to it and hearing the stories that she’s sharing, I can’t help but just think about how the men in our society can and should do a whole a lot better, because we’re not doing very well at all,” Gordon said.
Sheldon said the Spring Sing showcase will be her first time performing in front of such a large crowd. She was involved in theater throughout high school and had a small part in the UCLA HOOLIGAN Theatre Company’s production of “Footloose,” but Friday’s show will mark her first solo performance.
“I’m definitely nervous but the message that I’m getting across with my song, and the effect that it has the possibility of making on the audience, makes me more excited than anything – normalizing these conversations is always the first step in making change ” she said.